WHITMAN – In a frequently tense discussion, the Board of Selectmen voted to again table discussion on the fee agreement for environmental site work during its Tuesday, Oct. 6 meeting. The delay allows time to invite state DEP officials to schedule a visit to the board to discuss the issue.
“The issue at hand is whether the town should be looking at and assessing the conditions for the property at 602 Bedford St., which we know to be contaminated, and we know has a substantial file at the DEP,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam.
The town sought a grant from MOBD to fund a Phase 2 assessment of the property in order to identify and ascertain the level of contamination, what the contaminants are and what would be involved in moving to the next step — estimating the cost of returning the property to useful condition.
“It would help us to put the property back on the tax rolls,” Lynam said, making it clear that, unless Selectmen decide otherwise, the town has no intention of taking ownership of the property. “The tax title action, which was advertised a few weeks ago, is a lien mechanism that has to be employed by the town in order to ensure its right to collect the taxes that are unpaid on the property.”
Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green prepared a proposal to represent the town in that request through the courts. Green noted that the fee agreement covers the Regal property on South Avenue as well. A previous court action allowed access to Regal for only 180 days and a refilling is necessary to continue a Phase 3 site assessment there.
Tracey Costa, a licensed site professional with Ransom Properties and who has worked with the town before, but is not currently under contract with Whitman.
“The timing is really something to consider because we really don’t know next year what the Mass. Development funding mechanism will look like,” Costa said, noting there is also an opportunity to apply for an EPA Brownfields Communitywide Assessment Fund. “You really want to be able to attract developers to the site.”
The assessment would not only determine the level of contamination, but also would outline cleanup options, according to Costa. But in conducting an assessment, the town is obligated to cleanup the site if imminent hazards are found.
While that is not likely, she said, it is built into the language of the fund.
Finance and Building committees member David Codero, who has an environmental background, has brought up concern that the town may by moving forward in a manner that flies in the face of state and EPA guidance in terms of future cleanups.
“What they are proposing is to do an investigation on a property we don’t own, and my concern is that is opening the town up for liabilities if they don’t put mechanisms in place through the attorney general’s office and through DEP in order to protect themselves from any liability,” Codero said. “What type of liability does a non-owner have when going onto somebody else’s property?”
Costa said that access would have to be acquired through an administrative warrant. Codero said that must be done upfront to avoid full liability.
“What we are voting on is a fee agreement with a law firm that will take are of the issues that David is concerned about, am I misunderstanding that?” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said.
Green agreed that was the issue at hand.
“It is to motion the land court to allow the town access to the property to conduct the site assessment,” Green said.
Selectman Randy LaMattina disagreed.
“There are some people trying to get something passed that clearly don’t have an idea of what they are doing,” he said. “I’m not speaking of Ransom, but I’m speaking about liability issues on this town — the property — we’ve been given misinformation as a board and I’m going to take an opportunity to clear it up.”
LaMattina noted there are two purposes for cleaning brownfields — reuse and redevelopment — and a team should be in place to handle it as the projects are started rather than “randomly start poking holes in property you don’t even own.”
He countered Green’s response to an email from Codero that brownfields grants cover legal fees. They are, instead, a specialized area of contaminated site cleanup that are highly litigious and involve a tremendous amount of legal work, LaMattina said.
“Those will not be covered under any brownfields grants,” he said. “That’s a cost that this town better be prepared to absorb. …We have no plans for reuse and redevelopment.”
He also said that, while heirs to the property have not taken title to the property, they have never renounced ownership of it. It also has a handful of liens and judgments against it totaling more than $5 million.
“Before this town saw any money, that’s where the money would go,” he said. “There are liability issues. We can’t overlook them for the fact that this sounds good, and unfortunately I think that’s what we are doing.”
He moved that the issue be tabled until the DEP can come meet with town officials about it.
Green countered that she has done a lot of research and did not go forward with her response to Codero’s email without doing so, granting that she is not a brownfields expert.
“She’s doing it wrong,” LaMattina said, occasionally cutting off others. “Plain and simple, she’s doing it wrong. … This is not the way brownfields are supposed to be handled.”
Green said Mass Development has never told her she was pursuing the grant incorrectly.
Selectmen voted to allow Green to pursue the grant a couple of months ago and are now looking at a fee agreement to complete that.
Lynam said the EPA spent $1 million on the Regal property to make it accessible for development before running out of money, noting LaMattina made some points well.
“You can’t have a development plan unless you know what it’s going to take to develop that property,” Lynam said. “One of the things that comes into play is, what is it going to cost to clean it?”
He said this was the first he had heard that DEP is willing to come talk to the board.
“I think we ought to say, ‘Thank you, and come on out,’” Lynam said.
In other business, Lynam discussed Gov. Charlie Baker’s new guidelines for the continued reopening of state businesses.
“The only concern I have is that, as we start opening up, we’re seeing the numbers climb pretty much every day,” he said. “Today was low with 340-something, but I’m just hoping that people hold it together and do what they need to to keep it under control, because it would be a shame to move backwards.”
He said he met with the VFW and Board of Health during which an agreement was reached to halt meat raffles and motorcycle poker runs until further notice in the interest of public health.
Bezanson asked whether Selectmen or the Board of Health would be taking a position about Halloween activities.
Lynam said that would be up to the Board of Health, which will be issuing an advisory on it.
“The [state Department of Public Health] DPH has been emphatic in recommending that there be no door-to-door trick-or-treating and, while we technically can’t restrict that activity, we can certainly issue an advisory that we don’t think it’s in the best interests of the town to conduct that activity,” Lynam said.